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James Maxton MP and ILP leader.

James Maxton (1885 - 1946) was a Scottish socialist politician, and leader of the Independent Labour Party. A prominent proponent of Home Rule for Scotland,[1][2] he is remembered as one of the leading figures of the Red Clydeside era.




Early years

Born in the then burgh of Pollokshaws (now Pollok, Glasgow) in 1885, James Maxton was the son of two schoolteachers. He would himself later enter that profession after his education at Hutchesons' Grammar School and the University of Glasgow.

Maxton had whilst studying at the University of Glasgow described his political loyalties as lying with the Conservatives. He soon came to socialism, however, and in 1904 he joined the Barrhead branch of the Independent Labour Party (ILP). Maxton's move to socialism was heavily influenced by John Maclean, a fellow student at Glasgow University. In addition to Maclean's influence, Maxton was moved towards socialism by a meeting which he attended in Paisley which was addressed by party leader Philip Snowden. He was also influenced by the written word, including books by Robert Blatchford and Peter Kropotkin.[3]

Later in his life, Maxton claimed that the biggest influence in his decision to become a socialist was the grinding poverty experienced by many of the children he taught. He subsequently convinced all his siblings to join the ILP, with his sister Annie becoming a prominent figure in the organisation.

From 1906 to 1910, Maxton was active in the Schoolmasters' Union, where he refined his talents as a propagandist and orator."[4]

Political career

Campaign leaflet from Maxton's first unsuccessful bid for parliament, 1918.

Maxton was known as an effective public speaker. Historian Robert Keith Middlemas offers this vivid description:

"He was well-known as a platform orator with a thin hatchet face and mane of long black hair which fell across his face giving it a saturnine and piratical appearance, but although he was an established speaker and propagandist for the ILP, his considerable intellect had been somewhat masked by the showman's facility. The genuine hero-worship which grew around him was restricted to his native Barrhead where the ILP branch was his private preserve."[5]

Maxton was a vociferous opponent of World War I. He was a conscientious objector and refused to be conscripted into the military, instead being given work on barges. During this time he was involved in organizing strikes in the shipyards. Maxton was arrested in 1916, charged with sedition. He was subsequently found guilty and imprisoned for a year.[6]

In 1918, Maxton was elected to the National Council of the Labour Party.[7] He and Ramsay MacDonald were responsible for moving the motion at the Labour Party's National Executive Committee which dictated that Labour members of the wartime coalition government resign from it in preparation for the 1918 general election.

Maxton stood for parliament in the 1918 general election as a Labour Party candidate but was defeated in this first effort.

In his next electoral attempt, Maxton was successful, winning a position as MP for Glasgow Bridgeton in the 1922 general election. Once in parliament, Maxton's forthright views often caused controversy, however. In 1923 his parliamentary privileges were withdrawn temporarily when he called the Tory MP Sir Frederick Banbury a "murderer" following the government's decision to withdraw school milk. When Ramsay MacDonald, with whom Maxton had long since quarrelled, gave his last meandering, incoherent speech to Parliament, it was interrupted by Maxton calling out: "Sit down, man, you're a bloody tragedy."

Maxton was chairman of the ILP from 1926 to 1931, and from 1934 to 1939; he was generally seen as the symbol of the ILP after its break from Labour in 1932. A militant socialist, he was horrified by the class collaborationism of the Trades Union Congress after the defeat of the 1926 General Strike, and was co-author with the left-wing Miners leader, Arthur Cook, of the Cook-Maxton Manifesto of 1928.

In 1932, Maxton published a popular biography of Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin.

Death and legacy

Maxton died on 23 July 1946, still a sitting MP for Bridgeton. After his death the ILP stagnated until it ceased to be a viable independent political party.

Maxton was considered one of the greatest orators of the time, both within and outside the House of Commons. Churchill, whilst holding political opinions wholly inconsistent with those of Maxton, described him as "the greatest parliamentarian of his day".

Maxton heavily influenced his family's political opinions, with his mother and all his siblings joining the ILP. His brother John was also a conscientious objector in World War I; his nephew John Maxton was a post-WW2 conscientious objector who went on to become MP for the Cathcart division of Glasgow from 1979 to 2001.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has confessed to having been fascinated by Maxton as a young man and has written a biography of him, simply entitled Maxton. He also used Maxton for the basis of his PhD thesis whilst at the University of Edinburgh.


  1. ^ Knox, William (1987). James Maxton. Manchester University Press. p. 49. Retrieved 2009-10-10.  
  2. ^ "Letter from the Scottish Home Rule Association to James Maxton, 16 Nov 1922". Glasgow Digital Library. Centre for Digital Library Research, University of Strathclyde. Retrieved 2009-10-10.  
  3. ^ Robert Keith Middlemas, The Clydesiders: A Left Wing Struggle for Parliamentary Power. London: Hutchinson & Co., 1965. Page 48.
  4. ^ Middlemas, The Clydesiders, pg. 48.
  5. ^ Middlemas, The Clydesiders, pp. 47-48.
  6. ^ "James Maxton," Spartacus Educational, Retrieved 7 September 2009.
  7. ^ Middlemas, The Clydesiders, pg. 106.

Publications by James Maxton

  • A Living Wage for All: Dr. Salter's Speech in the House of Commons on Wednesday, March 7th, 1923. London: Bermondsey Independent Labour Party, 1923.
  • The Left Wing: Its Programme and Activities. London: National Left Wing Provisional Committee, n.d. [c. 1926].
  • Twenty Points for Socialism. London: ILP Publication Department, n.d. [c. 1927].
  • Our Case for a Socialist Revival. With A.J. Cook. London : Workers' Publications, n.d. [c. 1928].
  • The Roads to Socialism: Chairman's Address at the ILP Conference. London: ILP Publication Department, 1929.
  • The Case of Benn v. Maxton: Being a Correspondence on Capitalism and Socialism, to which is Appended the Report of a Broadcast Debate. With Ernest John Pickstone Benn. London: E. Benn, 1929.
  • Speech on the Government's Unemployment Proposals in the House of Commons 4th November, 1929. London: ILP Publication Department, n.d. [1929].
  • Where the ILP Stands: Presidential Address of J. Maxton to the ILP Conference, together with the Declaration on the Relation of the ILP to the Labour Party. London: ILP Publication Department, 1930.
  • Lenin. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1932.
  • Widespread Poverty: "The Existing Social Order Must Go." London: Independent Labour Party, 1933.
  • A Clear Lead. With Fenner Brockway. London: Independent Labour Party, 1933.
  • Keir Hardie: Prophet and Pioneer. London: F. Johnson, n.d. [c. 1933].
  • Dictators and Dictatorship. London: Independent Labour Party, n.d. [c. 1934].
  • If I Were Dictator. London: Methuen, 1935.
  • The Unity Campaign. With Stafford Cripps and Harry Pollitt. London : National Unity Campaign Committee, 1937.
  • Maxton's Great Anti-War Speech. Glasgow : Civic Press, n.d. [1939].
  • Why We Oppose Conscription. London: Independent Labour Party, n.d. [1939].
  • Break Truce with Tories and Build Labour Unity! A Statement for Consideration by Men and Women of the Labour Movement. With Fenner Brockway. n.c. [London]: Independent Labour Party, n.d. [1943].

Further Reading

  • Gordon Brown: Maxton: A Biography. n.c.: Mainstream Publishing Co., 1986.
  • Robert E. Dowse: Left in the Centre: The Independent Labour Party 1893-1940. London: Longman's, 1966.
  • Robert Keith Middlemas, The Clydesiders: A Left Wing Struggle for Parliamentary Power. London: Hutchinson & Co., 1965.

External links

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Alexander MacCallum Scott
Member of Parliament for Glasgow Bridgeton
Succeeded by
James Carmichael
Political offices
Preceded by
Clifford Allen
Chairman of the Independent Labour Party
Succeeded by
Fenner Brockway
Preceded by
Fenner Brockway
Chairman of the Independent Labour Party
Succeeded by
C. A. Smith


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